Pink Horn

It’s the horns of a dilemma, no question about it.

~Steven Jeffrey

Melissa needed a few caterpillars for a teacher workshop this week, so I went out the other night with our UV flashlight to scan the vegetation around the house. A reminder that many species of caterpillars glow under UV light at night, making them much easier to spot. It was slim pickings but I did see one sphinx moth larva (aka horn worm, due to the presence of a spike on the posterior end). It had just molted so I didn’t want to disturb it. Its size and behavior (feeding on the underside of a leaf) gave the impression of a Walnut Sphinx caterpillar, a species I have found several times in our yard. Plus, when I glanced at the host plant and saw the compound leaves, I assumed it was a hickory, one of the hosts of Walnut Sphinx larvae. I noted the location and headed inside, hoping the caterpillar would still be there in the morning.

A beautiful sphinx moth caterpillar on the underside of a leaf (click photos to enlarge)

When I went out the next day to retrieve it, I saw that the sapling was not a hickory, but an ash, and that the larva was not a Walnut Sphinx…but, what is it? I had not paid close attention to detail in the glow of the UV light and the pattern and colors were not yet evident in the freshly molted caterpillar. I took a few quick photos and went inside to search my well-worn copy of Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America. There are six species of horn worm larvae that feed on ash so it made the search a bit easier. None of the images matched the bold pinkish splotches along the sides of my caterpillar, but reading the descriptions helped me decide that this beauty is a Waved Sphinx caterpillar, Ceratomia undulosa. They are quite variable as larvae, with most being green overall, others pink and yellow, or some combination.

The black dots on the anal plate and the textured pink horn are diagnostic of a Waved Sphinx larva

But they all tend to have the textured pinkish horn and black dots on the anal plate (the hardened area on the top of the last abdominal segment). A quick search online ( showed the diversity of this species’ caterpillar colors and confirmed this variation for a Waved Sphinx larva. I am guessing this is a 4th instar, so it has some growing to do before its final stage. Just goes to show, never assume you know what you are seeing without paying attention to the details. But, no matter the name, it is a stunning caterpillar and a joy to discover just outside our home in the woods.

Museum Moth Night

The poets say some moths will do anything out of love for a flame…

~Mohsin Hamid

Last night we participated in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ National Moth Week live event (well, Melissa worked it and I just rambled around taking pictures through my fogged glasses). It was a great start to National Moth Week and we shared lots of moth (and other nocturnal creatures) observations with participants from all over the state. After the fact, we discovered that, unfortunately, our really crummy internet diminished the viewing quality of Melissa’s live streaming of the many cool critters we have out here in our woods. But, I hope it was still fun for people to see some of the great diversity of moths and other insects attracted to our moth lights (we set up two white sheets and two UV lights to draw them in). Our friends, Deb and Keith, were here helping us monitor the sheets and identifying what we could using field guides and apps such as SEEK and LEPS. This is a great outdoor activity for sharing while physical distancing.

The live program was from 9 p.m. until 11 p.m.. We had to wait until just before the start time to set up the sheets due to a thunderstorm, but then the weather cooperated (if you call sweltering humidity and heat cooperating). But our Chatham County moths didn’t seem to mind. Below is a roster of the some of the amazing nocturnal visitors we entertained last night…

Southern Flannel Moth, female

This female Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis) actually emerged yesterday from a cocoon we have kept since last year’s BugFest event at the Museum (in September)…perfect timing. This is the adult moth of one our favorite caterpillars, commonly called the Puss Moth caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

Datana sp.

Our first moth of the evening was a Datana sp. (aka cigarette butt moth – several species look very similar) (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Deep Yellow Euchlaena Moth, Euchlaena amoenaria

One of the more unusual shapes from last night, a Deep Yellow Euchlaena, Euchlaena amoenaria

Large Maple Spanworm Moth, Prochoerodes lineola

Continuing with the odd-shaped, presumably leaf-mimic, moths is the Large Maple Spanworm, Prochoerodes lineola

Juniper-twig Gemeter Moth, Patalene olyzonaria

The bizarre Juniper-twig Geometer, Patalene olyzonaria

Canadian  Melanolophia Moth, Melanolophia canadaria

One of several bark mimics, a Canadian Melanolophia Moth, Melanolophia canadaria

Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria

One of the most common moths in our woods is the Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria

Curved-line Angle, Digrammia continuata

Curved-line Angle, Digrammia continuata

Darker Diacme Moth, Diacme adipaloides

Darker Diacme Moth, Diacme adipaloides

Early Fan-foot, Zanclognatha cruralis

Early Fan-foot, Zanclognatha cruralis

Betrothed Underwing, Catocala innubrens

Betrothed Underwing, Catocala innubrens

Mottled Snout, Hypena palparia

Mottled Snout, Hypena palparia


American Idia Moth, Idia americalis

American Idia Moth, Idia americalis

Faint-spotted Palthis Moth, Palthis asopialis

Faint-spotted Palthis Moth, Palthis asopialis

Common Tan Wave, Pleuroprucha insulsaria

Common Tan Wave, Pleuroprucha insulsaria

Green Cutworm Moth, Anicla infecta

Green Cutworm Moth, Anicla infecta

Skiff Moth, Prolimacodes badia

One of our favorite slug caterpillars turns into the Skiff Moth, Prolimacodes badia

Eastern Grass Tubeworm, Acrolophus plumifrontella

One of the mohawk moths, the Eastern Grass Tubeworm, Acrolophus plumifrontella

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes, fasciola

A common small moth here in the woods, the Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes, fasciola

Red-bordered Emerald, Nemoria lixaria

One of several small, lime green moths we see here, a Red-bordered Emerald, Nemoria lixaria

Delightfful Dagger, Acronicta vinnula

A Delightful Dagger, Acronicta vinnula

Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda

One of our smaller Royal Silkworm Moths, a Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda

Desmia sp (Grape leaffolder Moth)

Desmia sp., one of the Grape Leaffolder Moths, best identified to species by looking at its underside apparently

Hebrew Moth, Polygrammate hebraeicum

A moth that was waiting for me the morning after, The Hebrew, Polygrammate hebraeicum

There were a few non-moth finds as well…

Female dobsonfly

A large female Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus (note its tiny moth neighbor, among others, a White Stripe-backed Moth, Arogalea cristifasciella)

Male dobsonfly

An impressive male Dobsonfly showed up right after the live program ended

All in all, a great evening of mothing and sharing. National Moth Week lasts all this week, so get outside and observe some of your night-time neighbors (the winged kind) at your window, porch light, or even in your wildflower garden (especially on white, fragrant flowers).


One of the cooler finds of the evening, a male Eastern Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Moth Royalty

In the jungle, during one night in each month, the moths did not come to the lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon.

~ Peter Matthiessen

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the case this past weekend, even though an almost full moon shone brightly through the treetops. I set out the moth light again to see if I might capture a few different species now that about a week had passed since my inaugural moth night. On my first check of the sheet, there were some of the usual suspects, including a plethora of tiny moths, several Rosy Maple Moths, and another huge (non-moth) Eastern Dobsonfly. But, there were also a few newbies, which created another excuse to while away the heat of the next afternoon flipping through some field guides (paper and online). Those that really caught my eye had quite distinctive shapes, making it a little easier to refine my search. Once again, identifications are my best guess, corrections are welcome.

Curve-toothed Geometer - Eutrapela clemataria??

Curve-toothed Geometer – Eutrapela clemataria – surrounded by small caddisflies of some sort (click photos to enlarge)

One resembled a stealth bomber.

Datana sp.

Datana sp.

One looked a bit like a banded cigarette butt, somewhat tubular in shape, with a fuzzy head.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx - Darapsa myron

Virginia Creeper Sphinx – Darapsa myron

Another resembled a different military aircraft, some sort of supersonic fighter jet.

Deep Yellow Euchlaena - Euchlaena amoenaria

Deep Yellow Euchlaena – Euchlaena amoenaria

And one just looked like an elegant person wearing a fancy shawl with their arms outstretched (and remember, these were my thoughts on the early shift…imagine what comes at the 2 a.m. shift). Two more checks that night, with the final one being at 2 a.m. That one turned out to be the winner…moth royalty made an appearance.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis

While driving up the long gravel road the night before, a huge moth had performed a kamikaze spiral in front of my headlights. We came to a stop and I got out and managed to cup my hands around it and found a beautiful Imperial Moth. That was excuse enough for me to set up the moth light that resulted in this report. Imperial Moths are one of our largest so-called Giant Silkworm Moths in the family Saturniidae. They have wing spans varying from 3 to 6 inches, with females being larger than the males.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, darker male

There were two of these huge yellow and mauve night-flying insects on the front side of the sheet and one on the back. At first, I thought the two lighter-colored ones might be female (males in the south tend to have darker markings).

Imperial Moth, male head shot

These moths readily cling to your finger when gently touched

When I let one of the more yellow ones crawl up on my fingertip, I could see feathery antennae, an indicator that this, too, was a male (a female Imperial Moth’s antennae are simple their entire length, whereas a male’s are feathery on the basal two-thirds of each antenna). Males usually emerge from their pupa a few days ahead of the females, and tend to show up more at lights. One theory is that females are quickly mated after they emerge and therefore do not travel very far from the plants where they fed as caterpillars. Males, on the other hand, may travel great distances searching for available females, guided by pheromones the female releases.

Imperial moth larva

Imperial Moth caterpillars can reach 4 inches in length and be about the diameter of your pointer finger. Their color can vary from green to brown.

Well, it sure would be great to have some Imperial Moth larvae (they are huge) for the caterpillar tent at next month’s BugFest event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, so I guess I will be putting out the light a few more nights and hope I get lucky. I suppose losing a little sleep would be worth it if I were rewarded by a visit from the queen of moth royalty.